TOKYO — Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense company, is counting on stealth technology to beat Boeing and Eurofighter in a Japanese fighter contest that may be worth more than $4 billion.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has better anti-radar capabilities than Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter's Typhoon, as it was specifically designed in a shape that would be hard to detect, said Craig Caffrey, a London-based analyst at IHS Jane's DS Forecast, which advises defense suppliers.
That may give the plane an edge as Japan has tried to buy stealth fighters that can be used for spying as well as combat.
"Stealth capabilities are clearly an area of focus for the Japanese," Caffrey said. "It's a key advantage for the F-35 over the rest of the competition."
Japan will accept bids this month to supply about 40 fighters as it bolsters air defenses to counter military developments in China and North Korea.
The contest comes as Lockheed sheds jobs because of projected cuts in U.S. military spending, which may include a reduction in F-35 orders, and after the Bethesda, Md.-based company missed out on an $11 billion Indian order for fighters this year.
Japan likely will choose a jet by the end of the year, said a Ministry of Defense spokeswoman, who declined to be identified, citing government policy. Deliveries are due to begin in 2016.
The order is unlikely to be affected by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's new government, said the spokeswoman. The new aircraft will replace Boeing F-4s, which were last assembled in Japan in 1981. Japan had 362 fighter jets as of March 31, according to the defense ministry's website.
With the world's sixth-largest defense budget, Japan is upgrading its air defenses as both Russia and China develop stealth fighters and as North Korea works on improving its ballistic missiles and developing nuclear weapons.
Japan's Self-Defense Force has relied on U.S. military hardware, and that pattern has aided Lockheed and Boeing in the current fighter contest by causing rival suppliers to sit out the competition.
Dassault Aviation, the French maker of Rafale fighters, declined to participate because it didn't want to play "the role of a stalking horse," according to spokesman Stephane Fort.
The Rafale and the Typhoon were shortlisted in April for India's contract to buy 126 fighters. Eurofighter is a venture between BAE Systems, Finmeccanica and European Aeronautic, Defence & Space.
Japan signaled its interest in stealth by trying to buy Lockheed's F-22, IHS Jane's Caffrey said. That failed because of a U.S. export ban.
The Super Hornet and Typhoon have features that reduce their radar visibility to a lesser extent than the F-35, which was designed with a greater focus on hitting targets on the ground, he said.
A handicap for Lockheed may be that development phase for the F-35 has been extended by four years to 2016. Japan may want aircraft sooner because 18 of its F-2s were damaged by the March earthquake and tsunami, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va.-based consultant.
"The F-35 is the leader in Japan, but with a big caveat," Aboulafia said. The tsunami "has raised the prospect of an earlier buy," which may favor Boeing, he said.